Holiday Hazards And The Hope For A Litigation-Free New Year

220px-Christmas_in_Dublin,_CA200px-New_Year_Ball_Drop_Event_for_2012_at_Times_SquareHere is today’s column in USA Today on the hazards of the holidays. While Halloween racks up an impressive array of torts, Christmas and New Year’s Eve produce a considerable number of accidents and crimes. The difference is that the accidents are often self-inflicted — many of which I have personally experienced. Indeed, my family shudders when I pull out the Christmas decorations in anticipation of some unforeseen disaster.

Christmas and the New Year come but once a year. It is the lament of many a child … and not a few lawyers. These two holidays seem designed for personal injury lawyers, thanks to homes filled with combustible trees, poor wiring, acrobatic decoration hangings, overconsumption of alcohol and overpacked vehicles traveling long distances.

Despite teaching torts, I have been the poster boy of the most common holiday hazards, though some statistics show I have plenty of company.

For example, those house decorations are a virtual siren’s call for slip-and-fall lawyers. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that 15,000 people were injured during last year’s November and December in holiday decorating mishaps. Some 34% of those accidents were from falls, while lacerations made up 11% and back strains made up 10%.

Personal experience

I have had them all: falls, back injuries, cuts and shocks. A couple years ago, I inflated a 7-foot penguin on top of my house only to learn that there was not enough room for me and “Pengy.” As I was slowly pushed to the edge, I hanged on to the penguin for dear life while trying desperately to pull his plug.

This year, I succeeded in shocking myself on a string of outdoor Christmas lights with an exposed wire — bouncing me off a ladder into a prickly holly tree.

While Christmas trees are another common source for accidents, the greatest fire danger are not the trees but candles. From 2009 through 2011, hundreds of fires and 70 deaths were attributed to candles — seven times the number attributed to trees.

Then there is the infamous fruitcake — with some in re-gifted circulation since the Christmas Truce of 1914. Just this month, the annual fruitcake eating contest in Santa Claus, Ind., was rocked by scandal after the winner was dethroned for hiding half an uneaten fruitcake under a napkin.

Finally, Antoinette Basso actually had a drunken Santa fall on top of her on a Chicago street — leading to a negligence lawsuit a few years ago.

Highway havoc

Like generals preparing to fight the last war, we tend to work to avoid last year’s holiday disaster and miss the ones developing in front of us.

For example, after prior luggage disasters, I purchased a top-of-the-line roof carrier. I then overstuffed the carrier, which proceeded to burst open in the middle of the night on a two-lane highway. All the wrapped presents hidden in the carrier were then deposited across the highway in full view of the children, and most of the packages were ground into holiday chum by 18-wheelers moving at 90 miles an hour. I found a pair of socks in the dark before we continued to Chicago.

Then there are the gifts themselves, such as the “Elmo Knows Your Name” doll that one couple bought for their son James. The doll freaked out the kid by repeatedly saying, “Kill James.”

I faced a different problem one year when I stuffed the toys for the four children into my carrier (now secured by about a dozen bungee cords). The problem was the toy “Talking Grill” wouldn’t stop talking. By Toledo, the battery loss produced a low level moaning that spooked the children for 12 hours while they sat in the dark. They listened to this voice through Indiana, Ohio and most of Pennsylvania before it finally died on the top of the car — leaving the kids staring blankly forward like shell-shock victims.

Sobering statistics

New Year’s Eve offers hazards of a different kind for torts and crimes. The most obvious is drunken driving, though you might be surprised by the actual statistics. It is Christmas, not New Year’s Eve, that produces the greatest number of auto accidents.

A study at the University of Alabama found that the six days around Christmas produced 18% more accidents than Thanksgiving weekend (which has the highest level of driving) and 27% more than around New Year’s Day.

Over all, the Highway Loss Data Institute says, you can expect a 20% increase in accidents in December.

One of the greatest dangers is actually found in that symbol of the New Year: champagne. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has launched a campaign to reduce the number of people who put their eyes out with champagne corks.

So I wish everyone a torts-free holiday, but just in case, keep your lawyer on speed dial.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

USA Today December 27, 2013

15 thoughts on “Holiday Hazards And The Hope For A Litigation-Free New Year”

  1. A fool + Opportunity = Tort

    F = ma

    ( Fatality = Massive_automobile x Acceleration )

  2. #1 hazard for travels having the TSA rifle your carry on bags, keep an eye on your luggage while checking in to the airport

  3. Aren’t any days ending in Y ripe for a good tort…. Why limit yourself to the endless bounty of negligence…..

  4. A very practical piece. We had a rental property in the town our daughter went to college. For practical, real world, business experience we had our daughter be a live in manager. We had a “no candles” rule. I worked hundreds of residential and apartment fires and many were caused by candles. It seems candles and pets, particularly cats, are a bad combo.

  5. Oldest son, an ER doc, sent a patient to a Level I trauma center via the lifestar helicopter, which all the ED staff now refers to as “Deathstar.” It hit a 20+ pound goose dead center in the windshield at about 115 knots.

    Pilot got it on the ground with no fatalities except for the goose. Fortunately the goose hit the very strong center brace for the windscreen rather than coming through either side, which would have also taken out the pilot. However, the entire flight crew–and patient–will be picking pinfeathers out of their teeth for the next week. All were covered with large helpings of pre-sliced Christmas goose as well.

    The patient informed them in no uncertain terms, “You ain’t gonna put me on no airplane again. I’ll ride that truck, but I ain’t gettin’ on no airplane again.”

    They say it is a good landing if you can walk away from it. It is a GREAT landing if you can use the airplane again. We haven’t got word on whether the helicopter can be used again.

  6. I strained my back first by lifting my adorable 30 pound grandson too many times and then by lifting a 20 lb turkey into and out of the oven, both things I am not used to doing and probably didn’t use good body mechanics, so beware out there of even the most benign holiday activities.

  7. To me Memorial Day weekend over the years was the worst one for fatals and serious collisions. Friday and especially Saturday nights there were drunks everywhere and Sunday the highways were overcrowded with people in a hurry to get home. After years of working this craziness, I just stay home.

    While writing this I thought of one particular swing shift where I went to 14 crashes in an 8 hour period. It was during the winter and the road was unbelievably slick in places; complete black ice. In fact it was so slick that I remember standing still on the road and the crowning of the roadway caused me to just start sliding toward the fog line.

    Anyway, I hope everyone’s holidays are without incident. I took the easy way out and stayed home with my wife.

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